I <3 Citizen Science (and you can too!)

Citizen science is hardly a new concept; yet, it’s still new to many. The Maker revolution has hit certain demographics and certain demographics would call themselves citizen scientists. But more can participate.

There are those volunteers that help collect data for more major organizations (bird watching is a huge spot for this but also other species observation and data collection; there are a ton of others from monitoring water to trees to sky). There are big name ones like The Planetary Society run by Bill Nye (the Science Guy) who does space travel advocacy, but also tries its own, non-government, non-university, privately funded and managed projects. There are also science clubs, and not just one run by a teacher in a middle school.

Hackers and their groups don’t have to be about computer programs. It’s about making something out of something else, it’s about exploring and having fun trying things, it’s real-life discussions and collaborations. And you don’t have to be a billionaire to go for it. Along with the Maker Revolution, I’d like to think there is a Science Revolution afoot too, or at least something like it; where everyday people are curious and want to design their own studies and they don’t necessarily want to be in a formal or university setting to do it. Yes, collaborating with experienced scientists is optimal, but not necessary, and an experienced scientist doesn’t necessarily have to have a PhD. That can come later (or not).

Granted, at the moment, universities, government agencies, and corporations tend to have the best toys, but that doesn’t mean the the regular person with drive and interest can’t make it (or some, less sophisticated version) happen for themselves. Please, by all means, consider safety! Of yourself and others. But a lot of the tools breakthrough scientists have used, they made themselves. You can too.

There are many types and styles of learning and traditional academia often doesn’t do the trick or offer the freedom to explore (I still feel a little sick to my stomach every time I think about high school). Many people can’t sit still or learn better interacting with others or by doing things or taking a lot of breaks and reading in their own time at their own pace. The point is that there are intelligent people who don’t fit the mold but still have something to contribute. Creativity, ideas, and willpower.

Willpower might be hard for those who have felt more beaten down than others (or perhaps are more hedonistic or impatient, but that’s not who I’m talking to; although, I think you can do it too), but I’d like to encourage you. Willpower can be learned and you can get it. It might take a while, but just keep not giving up and if you fall down or need to stop, just keep getting up and keep going. You’ll get there.

In addition to hacker and maker spaces, there is a lot of the spirit of citizen science in the world of open access, free software, and open sourcing. Librarians are some of the best people. The library system is about sharing knowledge with people and protecting that right… and to some extent, doing so at the risk of making authorities mad. They aren’t interested in hiding things from you; they want to share and for you to be empowered. Your friendly neighborhood inventors and developers may also want in on the action. There are a ton of forums out there with hoards of people that want to make the digital world a free space for all. They code and many are willing to help others learn. They develop better ways to analyze data and are willing to share better ways of accessing information.

The point of all of this is to say that there are resources out there to help you. There are others like you and they don’t want you to be afraid.

The scientific method is for everyone. It’s free. You don’t even have to pick it up from the library. It’s just there, a concept hovering in the universe for you to grab and use. Discovery is for everyone. Knowledge is for everyone. Citizen scientists are here to tear down the societal walls of government, big business, and university monopolies on science, but also to tear down the walls in our own minds – we don’t have to be the bystanders of progress and discovery. The world is out there. It’s also right here.

This blog post is a battle cry, of sorts. I want it to motivate you closet scientists out there. I want to uplift those who’ve felt their curiosity beaten down because they didn’t learn a certain way. But it’s also an educational piece.

The scientific method and discovery is for everyone, but it helps to know what the scientific method looks like and some good ways of going about discovery. It also might help clear your mind and think about things in a more discerning way, whether or not you’re running a formal experiment.

What I’d like to do is break down the scientific method. Here are the major points:

  • Identify what you’re curious about and be as specific as possible. But, if you don’t have a specific idea, don’t worry about that too much at first. Just be curious and start looking into it.

  • Research the shit out of your idea or interest.

    1. A lot of people (me included) do a lot of thinking and figuring things out when it’s totally unnecessary. It may help with developing your mind for problem-solving, but is a lot of extra footwork when the info is already out there. The art of “looking-things-up” is f’n great and very useful if you’re really wanting to figure something out. Then, you can use all those problem-solving skills to figure out new things, rather than figure out things that have already been figured out.

    2. Get used to using primary sources. You may need to start with Wikipedia to get some vocabulary and context and that’s a great start. But don’t stop there. Find those studies and work through them, even if it takes a lot of time. It’ll get easier and you’ll have gained an important skill.

    3. Doing the research can be rewarding all by itself. Chances are, learning about the thing you’re curious about will probably lead to you being curious about many more things. And should you want to run an experiment yourself, it might be about something completely different than you initially thought. Some people find themselves in the research state and are truly happy stopping in this space and that is OK. One can be a bystander if that’s where one is satisfied. It’s sad that some people don’t even feel like they can be an educated bystander – but they can.

  • Hypothesize. Based on all that awesome research, you may find something that either

    1. Hasn’t been tested and you want to start the ball rolling, or

    2. You want to see it happening first hand and you borrow a hypothesis. This is a great way to initially practice. Hanging out with the scientists already doing research is a good way to go. Running your own project to add an additional data point is great too.

  • Set up your experiment. Test your idea. Make observations. You may be awesome at speculating and coming up with a hypothesis, but proving yourself not wrong is a more delicate art.

    1. This may start out with doing a silly test like what Drew and I are doing where you want to test out a known thing on yourself just for fun and to gain some experience. Set up some parameters. Recognize why those parameters might be flawed and eliminate those flaws to the best of your ability. Record what flaws you see so that those who look at the experiment recognize where further testing is needed or should you try later to set up a more refined experiment, you’ll have notes to remind yourself.

    2. State your plans and goals and follow through, logging the info and your observations all the way. More information is almost universally better than less. TMI can result in later validation or motivation to pursue research in another area. In your final notes, you don’t have to highlight that stuff, but there is actually something to keeping things for prosterity and having a more in depth log of all of the data.

  • Analyze your data.

    1. Look at the information you’ve gathered as objectively as possible. Draw what conclusions you can. This may mean that something appears to be correct about your hypothesis, it may mean your hypothesis appears to be wrong, or it may be that it’s inconclusive and more testing is needed. If you know how to use some statistical analysis, that’s fantastic. If not, don’t be discouraged. You’re still learning. You’re still gaining more knowledge.

    2. Observe potential improvements to be made and potential flaws that may have occurred to skew the data. State them so that you can improve and others that look at the data can take that into consideration.

    3. It may reveal a new hypothesis! Or more than that! Often, uncovering data means there is even more to look at and that means more knowledge to be had and a direction to go. No matter what, your results are exciting. You know more than you did before, even if it’s just that the experiment didn’t work.

  • Don’t keep your results a secret. Share them so others can learn from what you’ve done and create further experiments. That’s the whole spirit behind citizen science and open access to information. We share information and we improve on what we have. People will either test it again, adding data samples, or they may make up more experiments that either validate your results or discover inconsistencies. There is so much to learn!


Note: One of the best things that you can do for yourself is admit to yourself that you have biases. Recognize that no matter how much you’ve read or how rational you try to be, there will still likely be more to consider. Do your best to recognize and eliminate the biases*, but recognize that the reason there is peer review and another reason why it’s a good idea to talk about your data is because others might see something that you’ve missed. The more data, the more info, the more progress. Science is not about pride or conquest, it’s about learning. It’s about removing the glamours and facades bit by bit and seeing how the magic really works.

Sometimes (or often (or usually)) science is slow and deeper discoveries take a lot of time. But it’s worth it, to learn to strive for something totally new. Determination is key for grand goals. However, even if your goals are simply to explore some gene splicing in your basement, you still can play with the scientific method and learn things for yourself or others with your interests. You can still uncover knowledge.

“Hackerdom rewards spontaneity, curiosity and ingenuity. Science rewards rigor and forging solid bedrock to stand on — which means a lot of carefully dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Although scientific questions are harder, more abstract and tend to have less immediate influence in the world, the questions are deeper and the answers so uplifting and transcendently beautiful that contact with them is a genuine spiritual experience.” – Virgil Griffith

I mostly agree but also take a different look than Griffith. I agree that choosing scientific discovery is the long road, but I don’t think hacking has to be about instant gratification either. The way to fuse the hacker ethic with science is to re-apply ideas and to look at things (anything) in different ways. Look at hacking, not as a means to an end, but as an improved way to put things together. Essentially, teach yourself rationality and the scientific method and use it in interdisciplinary, creative, and even fun ways. Use the hacker perspective to show yourself that, despite whatever background you might have, you can learn, and use your experiences, creativity, and mind for science. Not that Griffith is implying this is true, but don’t use hacking in the haphazard, impatient, derogatory sense, but as a complementary aspect of the journey toward truth.

Always wonder and don’t let your education level or your professional status stop you from satisfying that wonder. You can learn to do the things needed to contribute to science and/or to explore the world.

Go for it! Give yourself the tools you need to discover more reasons to take awe in this glorious universe.


*The link provided also links to a lot more to read about the idea of rationality. There are more perspectives beyond the website, but it’s an awesome starting point.
Featured image created by me.

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